WOMEN, WELLBEING AND THE PURSUIT OF HAPPINESS

This March, in honour of International Women’s Day (8th) and International Happiness Day (20th), we are taking a moment to acknowledge the needs of women, and celebrate their strengths; as care givers and individuals who may experiencing mental health problems. We also spoke with five women who are familiar with Mental Health First Aid, about happiness – read on to see their Q&As. 

Women and mental illness

Women have higher rates of certain mental health problems such as depression, anxiety disorders and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). In fact, around 1 in 6 Australian women will experience depression, while as many as 1 in 3 will experience an anxiety disorder in their lifetime. Other mental health problems such as eating disorders and certain types of self-harm also disproportionately affect women. The prevalence of these problems means that you will likely know many women who are experiencing challenges with mental health.

Challenges and barriers – well-being of women

The trope of a woman ‘struggling to juggle’ life pressures exists because it is grounded in reality. Whether full-time or part-time workers, mothers, single or married, women today face an avalanche of competing time, physical and emotional demands. Self-care is vital; however, it is often touted as simply a cup of coffee, a warm bath or a walk. These things are important and can be helpful, but holistic mental health is much more. When we factor in more complex mental illness or complicating factors such as family violence, disability, financial disadvantage and cultural considerations, we have to acknowledge that paying lip-service to self-care is not enough. A first step is the ability to recognise and respond to signs that something is not right – within ourselves and in others. Beyond this, pathways to care and a mix of supports is often needed to help a person towards recovery and management of mental illness.  

What about happiness?

Happiness is an important ingredient in life and well-being. It is something we should all have the means to strive for. According to the Happiness Institute in Australia, ‘True happiness involves recognising that as humans it’s perfectly normal to experience the full range of emotions including so called “negative” ones such as anger, sadness, anxiety and stress. The key, however, is responding to and managing these emotions so that they don’t unduly or excessively impact on functioning and that they don’t persist for too long.’

Lifestyles, circumstances, environments, health and the actions of others, can all impact our happiness. Some of these things can fall within our control and others may not. Learning to accept what we can and cannot control is an important life skill.

Experiencing mental health problems can threaten levels of happiness, and in turn happiness can impact mental health. Having a mental health challenge or mental illness does not mean a person cannot lead a full life with happiness. As someone who provides mental health first aid, you can be a key link in supporting someone so that they can find happiness.

You can’t pour from an empty cup

You have no doubt heard this phrase, but have you thought about how it applies to mental health? Whether it is a mother who is pushing aside her own needs, an employee burning themselves out with work expectations, or a student pushing on with commitments that seem overwhelming – life pressures impact us all. When we are run down, exhausted or emotionally struggling, we cannot always take care of our own needs, let alone others. This is an important reminder for anyone giving care. If you are supporting someone with mental health problems, you will also need to make sure your own cup is full.

We spoke with Dr. Tim Sharp of The Happiness Institute, an internationally renowned leader in the field of positive psychology. He had this message for anyone providing mental health first aid, “Caring for others is a wonderful thing, but you can’t care for others if you’re literally, sick and tired. Self-care is actually a prerequisite for other care; looking after yourself will help you look after others.”

Mental Health First Aid Australia courses prioritise well-being and safety for all First Aiders. We realise that providing support to someone can bring up strong emotions, feelings and worries. Taking time to debrief, practice self-care, and seek support if needed, is important. If you are interacting with somebody with mental health problems, take steps to keep yourself safe, well and happy.

WOMEN HELPING WOMEN IN THE PURSUIT OF WELLNESS AND HAPPINESS

In honour of our combined examination of women, well-being and happiness, we asked four women who are familiar with the work of MHFA to share their thoughts on what makes them happy, how to achieve happiness and the important role of mental health first aid. 

    Katherine Newton – CEO RUOK? (NSW)

    Katherine is CEO of national suicide prevention charity R U OK?  As a likeminded leader and collaborator in the mental health and suicide prevention sector, she has an interest in programs and initiatives that raise awareness, reduce stigma and encourage community connection.

      Q: What makes you happy?

      A: I’ve recently acknowledged that recharging is important and is something that makes me happy. It’s important to carve out the time in a busy week, and it has a great impact on my happiness levels and how I perform in my career and at home – keeping me productive and well. I like to give myself a day on the weekend, which is just about switching off from work and other pressures. The COVID situation has also reminded me how much I enjoy the outdoors, so I like to get outside more in nature. When I do these things and keep well, I also feel more positive and can maintain connections with my family – who are my ultimate source of joy. My family are in the UK and I keep in touch with them as often as I can through phone and video.

        Q: What would be your advice to other women on finding their path to happiness?

        A: Go for your guilty pleasure! Don’t be ashamed or embarrassed about the things you love or making the most of little things just for you. Enjoy it. If you feel it strongly, and it’s something positive, then go for it. Only you know what truly makes you happy, and your happiness levels, and so it is something you can take charge of. Be your own advocate and be kind to yourself.

          Q: How do you think MHFA contributes to happiness?

          A: Both Mental Health First Aid and RU OK? are about putting yourself in someone else’s shoes. When we try to understand and contribute to someone else’s happiness and wellness, it can fuel a more considered and empathetic approach to both loved ones and those around us. I think mental health first aid allows people to take a calmer approach to supporting someone. When we are not educated, we might panic or not know how to respond when someone isn’t coping. When we can properly assess the situation we can be considered and helpful in our response. We don’t all feel well all of the time, and just because someone isn’t coping doesn’t mean that should be put aside in a box. It’s important to show empathy for those around us – I think this a natural state, but that it can be further encouraged through education. 

          Learn more about RUOK?

            Learn more about Danielle Ferndale

              Dr. Danielle Ferndale – Research Officer, Mental Health Sector, Queensland

              Danielle has experience in mental health research and program development. Her specific interests include supporting Deaf people in the receipt of mental health care. She is a Certified Provision Auslan Interpreter and has worked with MHFA on a collaborative community project to develop guidelines and considerations for providing mental health first aid for Deaf People.

                Q: What makes you happy?

                A: One thing that brings me joy is a sense of accomplishment, when you are undertaking a task or challenge. Yes, it can be frustrating when you are trying to achieve it, but once you are done, there is that feeling of achievement that makes you feel good. I like to have this in both in my professional and personal life. Another thing I like is gardening. Outside there is a feeling of peace and you can shut out the noise of life. After a garden project you can sit, relax and enjoy what you’ve achieved. I also think it’s important to find joy from other people’s happiness. There is satisfaction in seeing others doing well, not just ourselves. 

                  Q: What would be your advice to other women on finding their path to happiness?

                  A: My advice would be get to know yourself in all your facets and be at peace with who you really are. This means being understanding and accepting of yourself. Connecting with your gut is also important to me –some people call it intuition –know it, trust it and believe in the choices you are making. Once you give yourself permission to truly be yourself in how your live life, this lets others around you know they can be their true selves too. Integrity is also really important –being loyal and true to yourself and to others.

                    Q: How do you think MHFA contributes to happiness?

                    A: Doing the course not only helps others, but it also helps participants to personally recognise the mental health issues they may be facing. This ensures people are more likely to reach out, before problems become too big. What I love is that MHFA normalises the giving and receiving of help. I think we also need to recognise that sometimes people don’t need to just be resilient. While resilience is great, it is a finite resource, and sometimes it is okay to admit things are challenging or that you need to practice self-care –the course is really great at focusing on this. On a whole-of-community level, the fact that the course is in workplaces and schools all around, means that our people and our communities are better equipped to support wellbeing.

                    Aimee White – Education Coordinator (Partnerships). Richmond Institute, Victoria

                    Aimee works for Richmond Institute, the education arm of Richmond Football Club. She specialises in the administration of education programs and has seen first-hand the benefits of the MHFA course delivered to students in the community. Aimee aims to become a qualified MHFA Instructor one day. 

                      Q: What makes you happy?

                      A: I love being in the sunshine, being outdoors and dancing. These things make me happy. I also love being with friends and enjoying that sense of connection. Another thing that makes me happy is the slowing down of the day. There is that afternoon golden hour, when the sun is setting and you can reflect on your day. If it’s been a good day, that’s great, but if it has been a hard day, then there’s always tomorrow. That optimism is important. Your inner coach is also important, to give yourself positive language and self-talk. 

                        Q: What would be your advice to other women on finding their path to happiness?

                        A: Always be yourself is number one. Also, you need to fill up your own cup first. We often tell young people and students in training that it’s the same concept as having to love yourself before you can love others. You need to be happy in yourself, before you can spread happiness to others. Once you do prioritise your happiness, it will  radiate from you. If you can find true happiness then it opens up so many doors – networking, opportunities and even career. Finally, finding happiness is your job. No one else can do it for you. Don’t rely on objects or other people to make you happy, because one day they might not be there, but you will be.

                          Q: How do you think MHFA contributes to happiness?

                          A: When I think about mental health first aid as a whole movement, I think it takes us one step closer as a community. One step closer towards happiness. By providing community support and knowing where to go when care is needed it creates community connection. At Richmond Football Club we talk a lot about the idea of emotional intelligence. This course highlights the importance of empathy for others, and putting your best foot forward to provide support, because you never know what mental health and personal challenges are behind someone’s eyes. 

                          Learn more about the work Richard Institute are doing with Mental Health First Aid

                            Learn more about Sarah Morrison 

                              Sarah Morrison – Instructor, Human R Training, Victoria

                              Sarah is a qualified Mental Health First Aid Instructor and delivers training in workplaces. She is also a Senior Health and Wellbeing Advisor within the Victorian Government.

                                Q: What makes you happy?

                                A: One of my keys to happiness is recognising that lots of things bring me happiness and having that variety in my week. Movement is important to me and I must have exercise and dance in my life, and so I run a local community dance-exercise program. It’s not even about physical fitness, it’s about connecting with people and walking out feeling good about yourself. Music also boosts my mood – I use it a lot, at home and at work. I also like being with family and doing things like connecting with nature through walking outdoors, enjoying the scenery and the sound of birds. I also love food, whether prepared at home or by my favourite café – I love sitting to enjoy food that uses nutritious and local produce. 

                                  Q: What would be your advice to other women on finding their path to happiness?

                                  A: Happiness is not something you can get right, find and then not think about again. It is not a destination.  You need to focus on every day, making adjustments as you go. My mother used to say that there is only one guarantee in life – change. It might sound like a negative, but it isn’t – it’s about understanding that you can shift with that change. If you are going through a period in time that isn’t happy, you should know that it is not forever and there is always a pathway out. Have the belief that things can change for the better, and work on your ability to move yourself out of that phase. I have also learned over time to notice happiness more. There are always glimpses, even during challenging times, that can bring happiness. Finally, I think as much as you can you need to focus on the things you can control. It’s a learned skill. Put your energy towards these things, whether at work, at home or in other areas of your life.

                                    Q: How do you think MHFA contributes to happiness?

                                    A: When I am out in the community talking to people in workplaces, their first reaction is often to view mental health under the lens of crisis or a low state, and while MHFA educates on that very well, I like to highlight that it’s more than that – it’s also about positive conversations and connections. Connection is so core to our human needs. Often people want to help someone, but they don’t have the skills. This is where MHFA comes in, and shows them not only how to connect, but how to do it in an effective way. If you imagine that someone is going through a hard time, and they have very little happiness and things seem bleak, and someone notices that, really sees them, and reaches out and then listens without judgement, and then instead of trying to fix them, supports them with some good resources – that is powerful. That can set a person on the path to happiness. It’s like as a First Aider you are the corner in the road that turns them in a new direction.

                                    Karen Bates – Program Manager 
                                    Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander MHFA, South Australia

                                    Karen manages Mental Health First Aid’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander programs and services. She is interested in ensuring that preventative mental health training and education is culturally capable, accessible and community-led. Karen is a Barkindji woman originally from Menindee in the far west of New South Wales along the Darling River and has close ties in South Australia.

                                      Q: What makes you happy?

                                      A: My family including my children make me happy. Spending nice times together and taking the time to connect in important. As a working parent it is always busy, but I enjoy the quieter moments, especially if we can be outside together connecting to country, enjoying the sunshine or the water. My passion is working in a role that is contributing to future generations, and the social and emotional wellbeing of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities. My thoughts on happiness and fulfilment aren’t just linked to me as a person, they are linked to community and the work that I do. There is happiness and fulfilment in that sense of contribution.

                                        Q: What would be your advice to other women on finding their path to happiness?

                                        A: I think finding the path to happiness is finding something that you are passionate about and committed to, and then recognising its importance to you. I am personally very tied to my work with community and I enjoy what I do. My advice is to find something you care strongly about and get involved in that. Work doesn’t really feel like work when it’s something you are really interested in and it brings you happiness. I think across the board, when I speak to different people in the community, it is clear that there is happiness in giving back to others. If there is something you can do for your community then that can also help you feel good about yourself. It is of course also important to take time out and care for yourself, but there is a lot of joy to be had in helping others. 

                                          Q: How do you think MHFA contributes to happiness?

                                          A: Mental Health First Aid empowers Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people with the knowledge and skills to then be able to support their communities in a culturally informed and safe way. MHFA training destigmatises mental illness and help seeking. It lets people know they are not alone and that any mental health problems they may be having are nothing to be ashamed about or to hide. The key is that people feel more connected and know there are others who can provide support. There is power in knowing people won’t judge you if you speak up about mental illness or hard times. There are people that can help.  

                                          Learn more about the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander MHFA course

                                            CONTINUE THE CONVERSATION

                                            Nearly one million Australians have now been trained in Mental Health First Aid. As we look to celebrate that milestone we continue to call on individuals all over the country to learn the skills and continue the conversation that could change a life.

                                            Click below to learn more about our full range of courses. 

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